Hello, and welcome to another episode of Tactically Naive, in which we look back at the week in soccer. And what a week in soccer it was. Two major derbies, and one major meltdown. What more could anybody ask for?
In many ways, following a sport is a series of negotiations with disappointment. Sure, there are moments of giddy entertainment or communal triumph, and they go some way to making the rest of it all worthwhile, but a lot of the time, things fall a bit … flat.
Big games end up small or mean. This titan or that whimpers out of their clash. Super Sunday starts to sound bitterly sarcastic. We always get results, but sometimes the stories just don’t live up to their billing.
But other times, thankfully, big games are Big Games, and everything that should happen does. So it proved in Germany this weekend, where Borussia Dortmund overcame Bayern Munich by the odd goal in five. It was thrilling, it was exhilarating, it was — to use a technical term — absolutely belting.
Perhaps more important than any of that, though: it was correct. Everybody — well, except Bayern fans; sorry Bayern fans — was tuning in to watch the Young, Thrilling Upstarts take apart the Old, Knackered Aristocrats. And in the end they did, and that was good. But it wasn’t easy.
Instead, delightfully, the game unfolded along the same lines as the denouement to some epic fantasy. Here comes the brave hero, off to slay the big bad. See how his armour (Axel Witsel) gleams! See how his magical sword (Jadon Sancho) glitters! See how his noble steed (Mario Gotze, probably) prances and preens, the better to impress any watching princesses!
But oh no! His adversary, that old and evil power from the south, is displaying unexpected subtleties. And also Franck Ribery is having a good game. Bang! Robert Lewandowski. Bang! Robert Lewandowski again. This was meant to be a triumph; it’s turning out to be difficult. This magical sword’s not working …
In the end, of course, our hero managed to find his opponent’s weak spots (Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer) and got the job done, with a little help from an ancient artifact once thought lost (Marco Reus) and a plucky sidekick (like, Paco Alcacer, maybe?). Cue wild celebrations all through the world — though maybe not the whole of the Ruhr — as the dark shadow withdraws, defeated, and the gleaming yellow light of freedom shines forth.
All this isn’t just a roundabout way of calling Mario Gotze a horse (though it was a bit). And it isn’t just because Netflix finally got around to putting up the Lord of the Rings trilogy (though in truth, it was probably mostly that).
There is a pleasing shape to such stories, which is why they stick around. Victories are all the more entertaining if they are won through the teeth of adversity: the hero’s journey winds through the dark places and so the hero emerges, transformed for the better. It’s too early to say if this game was the making of this young Dortmund team, of course. But it can’t have hurt.
More prosaically: if Bayern had turned up and fallen over, it would have been funny. But they turned up, and so the game was great as well. Congratulations to everybody involved. It all went perfectly.
Compare and contrast
… that to the Manchester derby, in which United turned out to be nothing more than an empty suit of armour casting a vaguely malevolent shadow. One sharp push, and they went to pieces. Clank, clatter. And sigh.
It’s probably fair to say that going into AC Milan’s game against Juventus, Gonzalo Higuain had a lot on his mind. He was to be going up against the club that paid €90m for him just two seasons ago, then — after 50-odd goals, mind, it’s not like he failed — packed him off on loan to make space for somebody even more expensive.
One wonders how he imagined this rematch going. A dignified acknowledgement of his former fans, a decent performance, maybe even a goal or two if the chances come. Most importantly, an opportunity to show them they were wrong. A— hey, a penalty! That’ll do nicely. Just before half-time as well. What a good time to score. Here we go.
Impossible not to feel for him, really. When things are supposed to go one way, and end up going far, far the other, when the gap between expectations and reality yawns this wide … it hurts, you know? It gets into you. And why wouldn’t you then pick up a needless booking, shout something into the referee’s face, pick up another booking, lose your head, and have to be dragged from the pitch, quivering, tears blinding your eyes. Who could blame you for that?
Poor lad. The suspension that follows a red card was designed as an extra punishment and a disincentive. Here, it seems like a mercy. Time for Higuain to get away and clear his mind. Read an improving book. Eat a delicious peach. Plough through Red Dead Redemption 2, pretending every poor sucker on the other end of his revolver is called Cristiano. You know, good healthy self-care.
Or time to shave off his beard, grow out his moustache, and change his name. Higuain? No, never heard him of. This is Mr Niaugih. He plays up front now. No, he doesn’t take penalties. Why do you ask?